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English 101: Primary vs. Secondary Sources

A research guide for English 101 students

Primary vs. Secondary Sources

When conducting research for your assignment, your first step is to gather information and evidence from a variety of sources. Using a combination of primary and secondary sources can help you build a strong argument for your assignment. No matter what field your are researching, whether the social sciences, or the humanities, the ability to distinguish between primary and secondary sources is essential.

Primary Sources

A primary source is an original document containing firsthand information about a topic.

These are accounts of an event, written by someone who experienced or witnessed the event in question. These original documents are often diaries, letters, memoirs, journals, speeches, manuscripts, interviews and other such unpublished works. Primary sources may also include published pieces such as newspaper or magazine articles (as long as they are written soon after the fact and not as historical accounts), research reports in the natural or social sciences, or original literary, art, or theatrical works. 

Examples of Primary Sources:

  • Newspaper reports, by reporters who witnessed an event or who quote people who did.
  • Speeches, diaries, letters and interviews - what the people involved said or wrote.
  • Original research.
  • Datasets, survey data, such as census or economic statistics.
  • Texts of laws, legislative hearings, and other government documents.
  • Original works of art, poems, or literature
  • Performances 
  • Photographs, video, or audio that capture an event.
  • P‚Äčlant and animal specimens
  • Coins and tools

Secondary Sources

secondary source contains commentary on or discussion about a primary source. The most important feature of secondary sources is that they offer an interpretation of information gathered from primary sources.

Secondary source materials, then, contain information that has been interpreted, commented, analyzed or processed in such a way that it no longer conveys the freshness of the original primary sources. These are usually in the form of published works such as journal articles or books, but may include radio or television documentaries, or conference proceedings.

Examples of Secondary Sources:

  • Articles critiquing or reviewing a performance, piece of art, or literature
  • Critiques of research
  • Literature reviews
  • Biographies
  • Articles or books about a topic, especially when written by people not directly involved.
  • Essay on a treaty or topic of history
  • Documentaries (though they often include photos or video portions that can be considered primary sources).


What are Primary and Secondary Sources in the Humanities?

Research in all of the disciplines - whether in the arts, humanities, social sciences, or sciences - will require the ability to distinguish between primary and secondary sources of information and material. In the most basic terms, the distinction relates to the degree to which the author/creator of the information or material object is removed from the event represented. 

But in university-level research, it gets a little more complicated. The meaning of these terms differs depending on your program of study and the context in which it is used.

  • In the humanities, a primary source could be defined as something that was created either during the time period being studied or afterward by individuals reflecting on their involvement in the events of that time.

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